Characters are a huge part of our stories, and even if you have a great idea and wonderful prose, a story can flop if the characters just aren’t that great or unrealistic.
So, what can you do to make your characters stand on their own two feet? In truth, it can really be summed up by three things:
1. What does your character want?
2. What does your character need?
You may notice that these two things are also what (should) drive your plot when structuring your novel. Okay, so let me help break these down.
What does your character want? Want typically is something that could be considered selfish or internal. A thief wants the crown jewels. Why? Because they want money. Why? Because someone has kidnapped his brother and is holding him for ransom.
What does your character need? The thief needs to rescue his brother and learn the error of his chosen path in life, gaining a more substantial relationship with his brother and earning redemption. Notice how I slipped in a “life lesson” into the needs, because typically those lessons should be one of the central themes of the story. Without them, the story will not be as interesting or have much of a purpose. The why behind the need should basically be what you as an author are trying to spread through your work. The message of love and understanding, the importance of family, the possibilty of redemption for a past life of crime… What is your message? Make sure that your characters need to learn whatever that message is so they can show it to the readers.
The why is where you come in and make the character your own and unique. Maybe the thief wants the jewels because they made a bet with another thief. (Then go into why he made that bet. To prove his worth? Why? Because even as a child, no one believed in him?). Maybe the thief just gets a kick out of stealing because of how he was raised. It’s entirely up to you and what kind of story you want to tell.
These are very simple examples, but they are a good place to start. Start with basics and build up from there. You don’t have to immediately know in depth the want, need, and why, but you should have a vague idea and then you can dive into what made the character the way they are (backstory) and how that effected who they became.
At this point, you might be saying, “Now, hold on a sec, Allison, what about physical description?”
Yes, physical traits are important too, but in my opinion, it’s what is underneath that is far more interesting. You can start with a basic idea of what your character looks like if that works best or you, but I wouldn’t put too much effort into fleshing out that mole on their right upper cheek that looks like Mickey Mouse in a certain lighting… Focus more on WHO they are instead of WHAT they are, and it will lead to more believable and intriguing characters. UNLESS, of course, there is something about their physical appearance that is a huge part of their personality, such as a scar/blemish/disfigurement or clothing/object they wear/carry with them (grandmothers necklace, ect).
Feeling overwhelmed with all of this? It’s okay. Take a breath. Go sit in a coffee shop, or a crowded park, or a mall… and just watch people. Take notes on what they are doing and saying. Imagine what kind of lives they might have. That girl sitting by herself quietly sipping coffee alone staring out the foggy window; what is she thinking about? Is she worried about her mother who is sick with cancer? Or is it just her dog being left home alone for the first time? These thought experiments can help lead you to discovering your own characters.
Wants and needs are the basic driving forces of humanity. You can see them every day in people all around you. All you have to do is pay attention to your surroundings, and pretty soon you’ll catch on to them.
Remember, find a method that works best for you, and…